Home / World War 2 and its Aftermath 1934 – 1944 / Independence for India 1920 – 1964

Independence for India 1920 – 1964

Even before the end of World War II, it was clear that Asia and Africa would soon be shaken by a great movement for independence. Everywhere the colonial peoples wanted to be free of the rule of other countries. The British, who controlled more colonies than any other nation, knew that they faced the break-up of their empire. Churchill was opposed to giving up any of Britain’s power. In 1942, he said, “I haven’t become the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”  A number of Englishmen shared his view, including some members of the Labour party: As late as 1946, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, a leader of the Labour party, said, “I’m not prepared to sacrifice the British Empire, because I know that if it fell a great collection of free nations would go into the limbo of the past and would create disaster.”

When, after the end of the war, Ceylon, Malaya and Burma demanded independence Britain agreed. Ceylon and Malaya remained within the British Commonwealth, while Burma cut itself off from Britain completely.

The problem of India, the largest and most important of Britain’s possessions, proved more difficult to solve. The Indians were firmly determined to win independence. “Come what may,” one Indian leader said, “we will come out as a free nation or be thrown into the ashes.” Yet the Indians were not a united people; they were divided by religious differences. On one side were the Hindus, organized into the All-India Congress party, led by Jawarharlal Nehru. On the other side were the Moslems. They wanted a separate Moslem state of their own, to be called Pakistan and they had set up the Moslem League, under the leadership of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The Hindus themselves were divided into numerous castes, or social classes, with the Brahmans at the top and the untouchables at the bottom. This caste system had existed for hundreds of years and was sanctioned by the Hindu religion.


Fortunately, the most beloved and respected leader of the Hindus was Mohandas Gandhi. His followers called him Mahatma-great-soul and looked upon him as a great man, a holy man, a saint. There were others who called him a humbug and a madman, but no one could deny that he was one of the most unusual political figures in modern times and that his actions and ideas influenced people throughout the world.


Gandhi was born in 1869, of a religious middle-class family. As a young man, he was sent to London to study law. He returned to India in 1891 and then settled in South Africa. There be found that thousands of Indians, who had been brought to South Africa to be labourers, were living under terrible conditions. For twenty-one years he worked to help them and was thrown into prison four times. In 1899, when the Beer War broke out, he supported the British and organized an Indian ambulance corps. He hoped that after the British won the war they would show their appreciation for the Indians’ loyalty.

The British did win the war, but they did nothing to help the Indians in South Africa. Conditions became worse rather than better and Gandhi continued the battle to help his countrymen. It was around this time that he turned against Western ways and began to live as a strict Hindu. He gave up his Western clothes and dressed in a loin cloth, with a blanket or shawl for warmth.

Gandhi also began to urge his followers to use non-violent resistance instead of force to gain their demands. This meant hunger strikes and mass demonstrations and marches. This meant not fighting back against the police, but submitting to arrest and imprisonment. This meant winning over people, as Gandhi put it, by “sympathy, patience and self-suffering,” by “the quiet courage of dying without killing.” By 1914 the frail little man in the loin cloth was known everywhere in the British Empire and laws were passed to better the condition of Indians in South Africa.

Gandhi returned to India just as World War 1 began. Again he supported Britain. Again he hoped that the British would reward loyalty, this time by giving the Indians rule of their own country — and again he was disappointed. In 1917, while Indian soldiers were fighting for Britain, the British government proclaimed that its policy in India would be “the development of self-governing institutions with a view to progressive realization of responsible government.” In other words, the Indians would be given more and more power in government, until at last they would be ready to rule themselves.

When the war was over, the British took no steps to make good their promise and the Indians grew restless. Not until 1919 did the British pass the Government of India Act, which gave the Indians some part in ruling the country. The Indians were still not satisfied. Their part in the government was too small; the real power remained in the hands of British officials. Riots broke out in various cities and the fearful British passed the Rowlatt Bill. This bill allowed the police to jail without trial anyone suspected of working against the government.

Gandhi had already begun a campaign of nonviolent resistance. He called for further demonstrations, but was deeply disturbed when they led to riots. The rioting was particularly bad at the city of Amritsar, in the Punjab region, where the mob killed several Europeans and burned churches, banks and railroad stations. The government sent in a force of about a thousand troops, under the command of General Reginald Dyer. He forbade all public meetings, warning that they would be broken up by soldiers.

The day after the warning was issued, a large crowd gathered in Amritsar to listen to some speakers. General Dyer arrived with about fifty troops and ordered them to fire. The crowd was in a clearing surrounded by mud walls. Before the people could escape through the few narrow openings, about 400 of them were killed and 1200 injured. More riots followed and martial law was declared. General Dyer also ordered all Indians to crawl on their hands and knees whenever they passed the spot where a woman missionary had been attacked.

All India was aroused by the “Amritsar massacre” and the “crawling order.” Gandhi said, “In as much as one man in the Punjab was made to crawl on his belly, the whole of India crawled on her belly and if we are worthy sons and daughters of India we should be pledged to remove these wrongs.” Gandhi had been loyal to Britain for many years and had urged Indians to support the reforms of the Government of India Act. Now, after the Amritsar massacre, he no longer trusted the British.

Nevertheless, Gandhi was horrified by the violence committed by both sides and for a while he stopped his campaign of non-violent resistance. Then, in 1920, he attacked the British government as a government of Satan. He said, “It is better to die in the way of God than to live in the way of Satan. Therefore, whoever is satisfied that this Government represents the activity of Satan has no choice left to him but to disassociate himself from it.”

By September of 1920 Gandhi was calling for “non-violent non-cooperation” to force Britain to give the Indians self-rule, “within the British Empire if possible, without it if necessary.” Under his new program, Indians would refuse to support the government reforms in any way. They would neither run for office nor vote in the elections. They would have nothing to do with the British courts, would give up all British titles and would refuse to study in schools and colleges controlled by the British in any way. Most important of all, they would buy no British goods. Instead of using English cotton cloth, they would spin and weave cloth at home, as Indians had done in the past.

Gandhi asked the Moslems to give up their belief in force and join with the Hindus to win freedom from Britain. He said “untouchability” must be done away with and asked the support of India’s 60,000,000 untouchables. Altogether, India must return to the simple life of the past.

“India’s salvation,” Gandhi said, “consists in unlearning what she has learned during the last fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like have all to go; and the so-called upper classes have to learn consciously, religiously and deliberately the simple peasant life. . . . Every time I get into a railway car or use a motor bus I know that I am doing violence to my sense of what is right.”


Gandhi predicted that non-cooperation would win India self-government within a year and at first it looked as though this might indeed happen, but again passive resistance led to violence. In the province of Madras, the Moslems rose up against the Hindus, killing hundreds of them. Then the troops that were sent in to keep order killed about 2000 Moslems and the truce between the Moslems and the Hindus was at an end. The All-India Moslem League decided that it would no longer support Gandhi’s campaign of non-cooperation. Even so, Gandhi was not discouraged. He broadened his campaign, calling for mass civil disobedience. He urged the people to refuse to pay taxes, rent and not to cooperate with the government in any way. In early February of 1922, however, a mob burned a police station at Chauri Chaura, killing twenty-one policemen and suddenly Gandhi had a change of heart. He announced that he was dropping his campaign of non-cooperation and civil disobedience. People should pay their taxes and rents; he was not opposed to the rights of private property.

Gandhi’s followers were shocked, but they rallied to his support when, on March 10, 1922, he was arrested by the British. The British had decided to take advantage of the division among the Indians and crush the movement for self-rule. At his trial, Gandhi said that he would “submit cheerfully to the highest penalty,” and he was sentenced to six years in prison. With Gandhi removed from the scene, the non-cooperation movement slowly collapsed. Nevertheless, he had awakened all India and the country would never be the same.

New leaders began to rise in the Congress movement, leaders whose ideas were somewhat different from Gandhi’s and among them was Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru came from a wealthy, upper-class family and like Gandhi, had been educated in England. Like Gandhi, too, he became a lawyer, but he turned from the law to take part in the drive for Indian independence. Nehru did not look back longingly at the past, nor did he reject the ideas of the West. “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West,” he once said, “out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me.” Nehru believed in science, in democracy and in socialism.


Gandhi was released from prison in 1924 and for four years he stayed out of politics. Then, in 1927, the British set up a commission under Sir John Simon to look into political conditions in India. The British made the mistake of not putting an Indian on the commission and anti-British feelings rose higher than ever. Once again Gandhi became the leader of his people, demanding full independence for India. He was strongly supported by the All-India Congress, which called for another campaign of civil disobedience.

On January 6, 1930, thousands of Indians signed this pledge of independence: “We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We believe also that if any government deprives a people of these rights and oppresses them the people have a further right to alter or abolish it. The British Government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually. We believe, therefore, that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj, or complete independence. . . . We will therefore prepare ourselves by withdrawing, so far as we can, all voluntary association from the British Government and will prepare for civil disobedience‚ including non-payment of taxes.”

By the spring of 1930, the civil disobedience campaign was in full swing. Millions of Indians stopped buying foreign goods and refused to pay taxes. Crowds marched in the streets of cities, waving the Congress flag and shouting for freedom. Again Gandhi warned against violence‚ again rioting broke out and again Indians were arrested and jailed by the British. Before the end of summer about 60,000 Congress members were imprisoned, including Gandhi and Nehru, who was now the president of the All-India Congress.

From the beginning, however, the Moslems had failed to support the civil disobedience campaign and as time passed a number of Hindus, too, lost their enthusiasm for it. Business and trade were suffering and many Indians felt that they had had enough of civil disobedience and the disorder that always seemed to follow. Finally, in January of 1931, the British began releasing the political prisoners and the campaign was called off.

During the next few years, a number of conferences took place between Indian leaders and British officials and in 1935 the government passed the India Act, which gave India a new constitution. More Indians were to be allowed to vote and Indians were to run the governments of the eleven provinces of British India. A national legislature was to be established, made up of representatives of the provinces and of the states which were ruled by Indian princes who cooperated with Britain, but the provinces were to have British governors and the British viceroy would still be the head of the national government. While the India Act gave Indians more self-rule than they had had in the past, they were far from achieving independence and the members of the All-India Congress were disappointed and displeased. At the same time they decided to take part in the elections and most of their candidates were successful.

When World War II began, the All-India Congress refused to support Britain unless India was given a new constitution and complete independence. Congress members quit their posts in the government and boycotted the war effort. Gandhi, who was a pacifist and opposed to all wars, announced that his sympathies were with England and France “from the purely humanitarian viewpoint.” He asked Britain “to accept the method of non-violence,” and said, “I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength . . . I venture to present you with a noveler and a braver way, worthy of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms. . . .”

Gandhi’s plea made little impression on the British, who were fighting for their lives against Hitler’s mighty army and air force. But in 1942, when the Japanese advance brought the war close to India’s borders, the British promised to give India independence after the war if the Indians agreed to support the war effort. The All-India Congress, led by Gandhi and Nehru, refused; they wanted independence at once. Besides, they feared that Britain might give in to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Moslems, who wanted to establish a nation of their own. In spite of the action of the Congress party, many Indians did support the war effort. About 2,000,000 men joined the army and thousands worked in industries that turned out materials needed for warfare.


After the end of the war, Britain took steps to grant freedom to India. The difficulty was that the Hindus and the Moslems could not agree. The Hindus wanted a unified nation. The Moslems wanted to be sure they would be free to practice their religion. While they were a minority within India as a whole, they were a majority in certain regions of the country. They demanded that a separate nation, Pakistan, be formed of these regions. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Moslem League, insisted that his People would never be satisfied with anything less and his followers shouted, “Pakistan or death!” He declared that August 16, 1946, would be Direct Action Day, when the Moslems would stage a general strike to win their demands.


Violence broke out in the streets of Calcutta, on Direct Action Day. For four days the rioting went on and 4,700 persons were killed and 15,000 injured. There were riots elsewhere as well and by February of 1947 about 12,000 persons had lost their lives. Finally, during the same month, the British prime minister stated, “His Majesty’s Government wishes to make it clear that it is their definite intention to take necessary steps to effect the transfer of power into responsible Indian hands by a date not later than June, 1948.”

Finally, too, the Hindus and the Moslems reached an agreement. The country was to be divided into two major states. India, for the Hindus and Pakistan, for the Moslems. On August 15, 1947, the two new nations came into being; after two hundred years of British rule, the Indians had at last won independence. Nehru was named the first prime minister of the new India and said that the “immediate objective must be to put an end to all internal strife and violence, which disfigure and degrade us and injure the cause of freedom.” Mohammed Ali Jinnah became the first governor general of Pakistan. He said, “Our object shall be peace within and peace without.”

There however, was no peace. Instead, there was bloodshed, as Hindu and Moslem fought each other. In the Punjab region, thousands upon thousands of persons were slaughtered and millions fled to safety. In other parts of India, too, violence broke out, but was stopped by Gandhi, who went on a hunger fast to emphasize his call for peace. “With every breath,” he once said, “I pray God to give me strength to quench the flames or remove me from this earth. I who staked my life to gain India’s independence do not wish to be a living witness to its destruction.”

On January 13, 1948, Gandhi started another fast in the hope of bringing better relations between Hindus and Moslems. After five days, Nehru and other Indian leaders pledged that they would respect the rights of the Moslems, but there were some Hindu fanatics who believed the Hindus should dominate all of India and they were bitter against Gandhi for his attempts to bring about peace. On January 20, they tried to assassinate Gandhi with a bomb. They failed, but ten days later they tried again. As Gandhi was walking to a prayer meeting in New Delhi, one of the fanatics fired a pistol four times at close range. Murmuring “Ram! Ram!” — “God! God!” -Gandhi made a gesture of forgiveness and fell to the ground. He died soon after.

The news of Gandhi’s death shocked the world. This frail little man with spectacles, who had lived on goats’ milk, dressed in a loin cloth and spent hours spinning cloth on a spinning wheel, had led millions of people and challenged a great empire. He had lived a life dedicated to religion, politics and he was not easy to understand. While he had still been alive, Nehru said of him, “What, after all, was he aiming at? In spite of the closest association with him for many years, I am not clear in my own mind about his objective. I doubt if he is clear himself.” After Gandhi’s death, Nehru said, “Reactionary or revolutionary, he has changed the face of India, given pride and character to a cringing and demoralized people, built up strength and consciousness in the masses and made the Indian problem a world problem.”

Gandhi had done more than that. Out of the ancient wisdom of the East and the newer wisdom of the West, out of the religious beliefs of India and the political beliefs of men like Thomas Jefferson, he had given the world a philosophy of freedom and brotherhood. He had shown that, with proper discipline‚ men could act on that philosophy and gather enough strength to change the conditions of their lives. His doctrine of civil disobedience had shown oppressed peoples a new way to gain freedom and would be a guide to them in the future.

An English writer summed up the feelings of many of his countrymen when he said that “time will enable us to see the triumphs and blunders of Gandhi in a gentler light. He has harboured no enmity against us. . . . One day we shall raise a Statue to his memory, as we have raised status to Washington and Lincoln, and to the memory of others whose universal spirit transcended the conditions of their time. . .”


After the death of Gandhi, India’s millions looked to Nehru for leadership. They were not disappointed. While Nehru wanted his country to follow a “socialist pattern,” he had a firm belief in democracy and the rights of the individual. As the head of the government, he began plans to improve India’s economy and the living conditions of its people.

It was not an easy task. There were many conflicts with Pakistan, a vast country in its own right — conflicts that sometimes led to bloody riots and seemed about to flare into war. He had the Communists to contend with — the Communists within India itself and the Communists of other countries — who were trying to spread their ideas and increase their influence, in the East as well as in the West. India was a land of poverty, of starvation, of disease, of illiteracy, of religious practices and age-old customs that divided the people and made progress difficult.

India was, in fact, one of the most desperately poor countries in the world and Nehru realized that its only hope lay in drastic social reform and rapid industrialization. Most of the land and wealth of the country was owned by a small number of persons and to make matters even worse, India’s population was increasing more rapidly than its production of food. Mass starvation had been prevented only by shipments of wheat from the United States. Furthermore, India was not a truly united nation. The people were divided not only into castes, but into many groups fiercely determined to keep their separate identities. They were separated even by the languages they spoke. Altogether, India had some 179 languages and 544 dialects. Only about a third of the country’s 450,000,000 people spoke Hindi, the most widespread language. Although the government officially opposed the caste system and took steps to better the condition of the untouchables, it could make little headway. The caste system was too deeply rooted in India’s religious tradition; it had been established many centuries ago and it would continue to plague India for years to come.

Nehru was ready to take help wherever he could get it and when the cold war began he followed a policy of neutrality. India remained friendly with both the United States and the Soviet Union and received economic aid from both. Nehru felt that, at the same time, India was a bridge between the East and the West and was helping to preserve the peace.

Then trouble arose from a completely unexpected direction. North of India, just beyond the great Himalayan Mountains, lay China. When India had been under British rule, the British had occupied certain territories in the Himalayan region. China had claimed these territories as its own, but did little about it until the Communists took over the government in 1949. India was now an independent nation and although it refused to give up any of the disputed territory, it remained on friendly terms with Communist China.

By the late 1950’s, however, the dispute became an open quarrel. The two countries accused each other of treachery and of violating longstanding agreements. Nehru, who had defended the Chinese Communists, especially in the United Nations, now sent troops to the Himalayan border region and in October of 1962, fighting broke out. The Indians, greatly outnumbered by the Chinese forces, were routed and China took over much of the territory it had claimed.

India felt humiliated, for its soldiers had failed to put up a good battle. Nehru was shocked and suddenly changed his policy. Fearing that China might conquer all of India, he turned to the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and asked for military assistance. At the same time, he took measures to strengthen the Indian army. India was no longer strictly neutral; at the same time, it had definitely broken away from Gandhi’s ideal of non-violence. India was preparing for a full-scale war if China should attack again.

China did not attack; there was an uneasy peace between the two nations when Nehru died in 1964. Nehru had lived to see some of his hopes realized. India had thrown off British rule and had established a democracy. The Congress party, which he had helped to shape, still had the support of the Indian masses. The entire world mourned Nehru; a tireless traveler and speaker, he had become a world figure, a force for peace a link between the East and the West.

Nehru left India’s enormous problems unsolved. How they would be solved, only the future could tell, but one thing was certain. India had broken with its colonial past and had become an important force in world affairs.

Check Also


Contact with the West Brings Changes in Asia (the East)

In July 1858 a small fleet of American warships steamed into Tokyo Bay in Japan. …

Translate »